Sagas | The Magic of a Storytelling Voice

by Marylee MacDonald in For Beginning Writers, For Readers

Sagas are one of our most enduring story forms. In sagas the voice of a narrator takes us back into a heroic time of grand deeds, power struggles, and families pitted against one another. Sagas are about survival. Something is a stake. That’s why sagas make terrific templates for new writers.

Sagas:Viking house, Keen of Hamar - geograph.org.uk - 1372692.jpg

Imagine the long nights and cold winters in the Viking House on the Keen of Hamar. Sagas from a passing storyteller would have been welcome.

Here you sit in this isolated farmstead, and you are bored out of your mind. Logs crackle in the hearth. You wrap a fur around your shoulders and move your feet closer to the fire. You have no TV and no cell phone. Of course not! You’re a Viking! And, not only that. You’re living in Finland or Iceland or Denmark or Norway, and the nights are long.

Someone knocks on the door. A group of traveling musicians. Better yet, a traveling poet! Bring them in, by all means. Offer them a warm drink! Give the storyteller your chair. Before he even begins, you know that when he speaks, his voice will transport you to another place and time. You welcome that voice because you want to be entertained.

The “story voice” in sagas is one reason they have endured.

Sagas:Viking musicians - geograph.org.uk - 1717663.jpg

Sagas began as stories told or sung by itinerant storytellers.

What Inspired Tolkien?

Did you know that ancient Finnish rune-poems (essentially sagas) inspired J.R.R. Tolkien to write his stories of Middle Earth? And that Icelandic sagas (older than “Beowulf”) began as oral tales?

Now, why am I taking you on this walk down Memory Lane? Because voice is so important for writers today. And, yet, in many manuscripts I see, the voice is utterly flat. I read and I’m bored. I read, and I feel as if I’m grading a college theme. There’s no “Call me Ishmael” or “You don’t know me without you have read a book by the name of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter.”

Look at your writing, and see if you can find sections with a distinctive voice. Grab onto that voice and see where it takes you.

But, just in the off chance you haven’t yet found a story voice or you have no idea what I’m talking about, let’s go back to the source (so to speak). Let’s remember that all stories once began with a single voice, that of the storyteller speaking his words aloud. And, let’s consider that one of the great pleasures of reading is hearing the storyteller’s voice whispering in your ear.

Sagas, One of the Oldest Storytelling Forms

Each story has its own voice, and that voice is created by the sentence structure, the word choice, and the preoccupations of the author. If you think of the old Icelandic sagas, you may be able to picture a storyteller entertaining a crowd with a saga about the olden days.

In Egil’s Saga (attributed to Snorri Sturluson, but no one knows for sure) the author’s preoccupation with landholdings and his status in society comes through clearly, but is never directly stated. Immediately, because of the pacing of sentences and the sweep of time, we know we’re in saga-land.

EGIL’s SAGA

Thorolf went to his estates at Sandness [and] had a long-ship built, large, and with a dragon’s head…He gathered great stores of what there was in Halogaland, employing his men after the herrings and other fish; seal-hunting there was too in abundance, and egg-gathering, and all such provision he had brought to him. Never had he fewer freedmen about his home than a hundred… A mighty man he became, and he bestowed much care on his ships, equipment, and weapons.

King Harold went that summer to Halogaland… Thorolf prepared a banquet for the king at great cost… The king had about three hundred men…, but Thorolf had five hundred present. Thorolf had caused a large granary to be fitted up where the drinking should be, for there was no hall large enough to contain all that multitude. And all around the building shields were hung.

The king sat in the high seat; but when the foremost bench was filled, then the king looked round, and he turned red, but spoke not, and men thought they could see he was angry. The banquet was magnificent, and all the viands of the best. The king, however, was gloomy…–Snorri Sturluson, EGIL’S SAGA, Chapter VI (1220-1240 A.D.)

Why am I bothering with this old tale? Because we writers need to train our ears. We need words to describe the voice-qualities in fiction. Otherwise, if we’re in a critique group we won’t have a way to gently suggest that the writer take a second look at the story’s voice.

I’m going to pose some questions and give you my answers. You might think I’m all wet, so just read the questions, one by one, and go back to the passage. And, please, weigh in with a comment if you have something to add.

  • Where would you say this saga falls on the scale of formal vs. informal language? (I picked up on the unusual word order. To me the language seemed biblical or heroic.)
  • Which details make you believe this really happened? (The ones that jumped out at me were the visual details, such as the dragon’s head ship, the herring, the eggs, the shields, and the granary. It also seemed emotionally truthful because I believed that King Harold would react that way.)
  • Is the storyteller authoritative? (I thought so. He seems methodical in his attention to detail. He also seems to know about the people.)
  • Do you have confidence that you’re being given the truth? (I don’t have immediate doubts about the story’s truth, and I think that has to do with the sentence rhythms. I’m mesmerized and ready to follow the story of the great heroes.)
  • Is the story going to entertain you? (Yes. There will be wars, fights about land, and betrayals. All this will occur on a grand scale.)
  • Do you trust this voice, or do you think it’s trying to put one over on you? (I trust it. It’s almost like a history book, only more personal.)

We can now describe this voice. It’s old-fashioned, rich in detail, and truthful.

Look when this saga was written—800 years ago—and yet we recognize this document as a story. That’s because the storyteller’s voice has lulled us into that state where we expect big events to happen. From the voice, we know this will not be a story about the twistings and turnings of the protagonists’ souls. This will not be a story about a husband and wife on the brink of divorce.

The stage will be as big as that granary, and right from the beginning, the storyteller clues us in to the importance of landholdings, possessions, and alliances. The author also plants details that he picks up later and uses in the plot.

Let me make one other observation. This passage provides details that propel the story forward. All the talk of food leads to the banquet. Ah, and now a king comes in, a king who grows angry; his men are outnumbered and there are plenty of shields on the walls. What will happen next? Will Thorolf challenge the King’s rule?

Sagas Have Plots

Not only do sagas have “voice.” They have plots. They have a certain tone, a James Michener tone.

Sagas tell the story of one family or several interconnected families over a period of time as their fortunes ebb and flow. Examples of such books are BRIDESHEAD REVISITED by Evelyn Waugh, THE FORSYTE SAGA by John Galsworthy, HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS by Isabelle Allende, THE THORN BIRDS by Colleen McCullough, DUNE by Frank Herbert, and ROOTS by Alex Haley.

A WOMAN OF SUBSTANCE, by Barbara Taylor Bradford, is sometimes placed in the romance genre, but it is actually the first book in a saga that spans several decades. Bradford went on to write a trilogy of novels spun off from this first one: HOLD THE DREAM, TO BE THE BEST, and AN ACT OF WILL. After that, she went back and wrote one more book called EMMA’S SECRET. This last is a personal saga about money and power and relationships. Here’s a summary of its plot.

Emma Harte struggles to rise above her situation of poverty and despair to become a force to reckon with in international business. With brains and beauty, she turns her small shop into an international empire: Harte Enterprises. Always looking for love and never really finding it for long (think Bonanza), Emma turns her focus to her business and makes it her entire life. When it is threatened by those closest to her she turns vicious and enacts a devastating revenge.

Sagas are generally about accumulating wealth, struggling to create alliances and overcome competitors, and exact vengeance for disloyalty, but in Bradford’s case, they’re also about romantic entanglements along the way.

Each kind of saga—whether romance, sci fi, or fantasy—has plot conventions that are hardwired into our brains. That’s because we’ve been listening to sagas since the days Viking raiders brought back news of their exploits in foreign lands.

 A saga can serve as a template for a story you might want to write. Instead of fonts, you have voice and a certain kind of plot. Maybe you can take these ideas and use them during NaNoWriMo, or maybe, you’ll just put it in your “maybe later” pile.

Have fun with this, and click on the links to some of these old, old tales. I think you’ll feel inspired.

Here are some other words for voice: whimsical, tiresome, saccharin, ironic, sarcastic, sweet, street-smart, wise, tired, passive, funny, the voice of a loner, unreliable, a gabber, academic, distant, self-assured, self-satisfied, pompous, obnoxious, endearing, naive, youthful, trapped, psychotic, mystical, holy, holier than thou, probing, sympathetic, compassionate, logical, dry, rigid, condescending, filthy, low class, high class, businesslike, hysterical, loopy, frozen, or foreign.

Want to add anything to this list? Feel free!


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: